This invasive insect was first noted in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014 and in just a few short years has multiplied to the extent that it is now found in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Ohio, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Indiana. That is an amazing expansion and troubling to think it could have gained such a foothold in that short of time. It’s ability to move and its unchecked reproduction have concerned experts from all over the country.

range of the spotted lanternfly

Range map of the spotted lanternfly showing quarantine zones courtesy of Cornell University

Identifying the spotted lanternfly

The spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) is actually a pretty insect. It is a member of the leaf-hopper family, however it is much larger than the leaf-hoppers we are familiar with here in North America. Native to China and southeast Asia, it has stowed away on items shipped from those countries and is starting to be a concern wherever it lands. Its pretty wings are gray at the tips and sport attractive tiny spots closer to its head. When it spreads the upper wings, the scarlet underwings with black patches show and it is even prettier. The nymphs (immature forms) are bright red with spots or black with spots, depending on what stage of maturity you find them. However, don’t let the beautiful appearance fool you. This is one bad dude. It is harmless to humans and even though it doesn’t bite or sting, the spotted lanternfly is a huge pest.

spotted lanternfly nymphs

The spotted lanternfly is a destructive agricultural pest

This is one huge threat to agriculture. The spotted lanternfly loves grapevines and fruit trees. They are large insects with large appetites and they suck the sap from their favored hosts, weakening them until they die. They also secrete a sticky honeydew that falls to the ground below them. It turns to a nasty black mold and makes the ground a mess. One spotted lanternfly wouldn’t be much of a problem, or even ten. However they tend to congregate in huge masses that can only mean trouble for the plants they select. They have very few natural predators here in North America. Chickens like them, however since chickens rarely hunt insects in trees, they can’t make much of a dent in the population. Praying mantids like them too, however there’s not enough of them to make much difference either. The spotted lanternflies are over an inch long, so just one will make a huge feast for a praying mantis. They reproduce in huge numbers and have been pretty much unchecked since they’ve arrived.

Be aware of invasive species

That’s the way invasive species tend to do. They are introduced into an area that has no natural checks and balances and the numbers increase until they become more than an inconvenience. The vast numbers do irreparable harm to their new ecosystem. Murder hornets are gaining a foothold on the west coast. Their primary prey is the honeybee. Our North American bees have not developed the protection that their Asian cousins have, so the murder hornets massacre whole hives with no resistance. Purple loosestrife seeds were released into harbors with ballast and now these aquatic plants have taken over many wetlands, crowding out natives. Invasiveness goes both ways. Our North American bullfrog is highly invasive everywhere except here. They were introduced as a food source in Europe, Asia and South America (because of their tasty froglegs) and they simply hopped out of their containment areas and set up housekeeping in the local ponds and bogs. It doesn’t matter whether it was accidental or intentional, it just isn’t a good idea to move species around the planet with no regard for the consequences.

Some states have enacted quarantines to prevent the spread of the spotted lanternfly

States affected by the spotted lanternfly are now taking extreme measures to prevent their spread. Parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware are now under quarantine. What this means is that for the movement of certain goods and materials, they have to be inspected for egg masses or the insects themselves before they can leave the area. The egg masses are the most important because they hatch hundreds of the insects. They look like brown smears of mud and are often laid on smooth surfaces like truck bodies, lumber and bricks or stones. It also doesn’t help matters any that the adults are able to hang on to vehicles moving at up to 60 miles per hour either. They just hitch a ride and settle in.

spotted lanternfly mass

Kill all of the spotted lanternflies you find and report them

If you see one, no matter where you are, kill it. They are over an inch long and hard to miss. After you kill the lanternfly, let your County Extension Office know. Every county has one, staffed by the agricultural department of your state college. They will record it and if warranted, send someone out to examine the area for more. There is even a hotline to report them: 1-888-4BADFLY. Reporting is especially important if you live outside the quarantine zone.

spotted lanternfly egg mass

By containing the spotted lanternfly, agricultural crops can be saved

This insect poses a huge threat to agriculture and even our ornamental plants. They aren’t terribly choosy, however their favorite meal seems to be the equally invasive tree of Heaven, (Ailanthus altissima) which in my opinion, was named after the wrong afterlife destination. It is an Asian import that has escaped cultivation and chokes out native species as well. Since they both hail from the same corner of the globe, the lanternfly sees it as a familiar meal. However, that doesn’t keep it from laying waste to our vineyards and orchards. It also seems to favor maples and willows along with hops vines, so that endangers our maple syrup and beer. You can do your part by paying close attention to your ornamentals and anything that you are taking out of the quarantined area, if you live there. Keep your vehicles clean, even underneath. The eggs look like smears of dried mud and they like to lay them on smooth surfaces like car bodies, lumber, camping gear and bricks. Scrape them off into a container holding rubbing alcohol to kill them, then report it. Invasive species aren’t something to take lightly. They can upset the environmental balance in an area and are almost impossible to control once they gain a foothold.